Anbar tribal leader explains his turn against al Qaeda


Col. Sean MacFarland, the commander of U.S. forces in Ramadi, knows another powerful man when he sees one. MacFarland understood immediately the sway Sheik Abdul Sittar holds in Ramadi when he met the tribal leader for the first time in August. "The walls were just lined with guys in the sheik robes," MacFarland says, describing the scene at Sittar's compound when he arrived for a formal meeting with the sheik shortly after assuming command in the area. Among Sittar's guests that day were local police officials who often fail to turn up for meetings called by the governor of Anbar Province, Maamoun Sami Rashid al-Awani. And there were other prominent local leaders sometimes difficult to corral. "I go down and see to the governor about once a week, and it's just me and the governor," says MacFarland, who views Sittar's ability to fill a room as a measure of the respect and authority he commands. "I go into sheik Sittar's house, and the place is packed."

Tasked with clearing Ramadi of insurgents, MacFarland and the officers under his command had been looking for local allies to help with the fight since they arrived in the summer as Ramadi became an urban battleground. Seemingly from nowhere Sittar, the leader of the Albu Risha tribe, volunteered himself — and the thousands of followers loyal to him. Shortly before MacFarland met Sittar, a tribal alliance led by the sheik had come together and issued a manifesto denouncing al Qaeda in Iraq and pledging support to American forces. MacFarland had heard about Sittar and his movement, which the sheiks call the "Awakening." And after a few meetings with Sittar, MacFarland felt he had a friend he could trust.

Soon an agreement was struck. U.S. forces would build and secure a series of police stations in Ramadi, where insurgents had run off the cops almost entirely. In return, Sittar would send recruits, hundreds of them, to join local security forces, which MacFarland wants to see take the lead in the battle to regain control of the city. MacFarland admits that he was a bit skeptical about Sittar's commitment to cooperating with U.S. forces. But month after month through the fall, police volunteers turned up, just as Sittar promised. An estimated 500 recruits joined the revamped police training program for Ramadi in November, bringing the number of overall new volunteers to around 1,500. Compare that figure to enrollment in May, when roughly 40 men signed on to a police force then numbering only about 150 officers in Ramadi. "Sheik Sittar has delivered on every single thing he has promised me," says MacFarland. "He's a leader."


Sittar paints his transformation into a U.S. supporter in Iraq as an epiphany flowing from the realization that al Qaeda was an evil force destroying life for him and others in Ramadi. The tribal leaders who've gathered under his banner, about 40 in all, echo the sentiment, which seems sincere enough even if other motives have factored into their decision to take up the cause now, three years into the insurgency. The U.S. is simply glad that the enemy of its enemy is now a friend. MacFarland acknowledges that the reasons Sittar and other tribal leaders have for cooperating with U.S. efforts in Anbar Province remain somewhat murky even to him. But what matters most to MacFarland are the results he's getting from Sittar as the two work together against their common enemy in Ramadi these days.

Some early signs of success in the slightly improved situation in Ramadi offer hope that the arrangement will continue to work for the foreseeable future. Sittar says the tribes would never turn against Americans, and he stresses again and again his commitment to building up the Iraqi government and deferring authority, eventually, to it....
There is more on the back ground of the transformation. This is an important development. It is much more important than the dated intelligence report on Anbar that the Washington Post has twice leaked. It has been clear for some time that la ?Qaeda has lost the hearts and mind battle in Iraq, and now some in the Iraqi tribal community are joining in the effort to get rid of the Islamist religious bigots.


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